White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.
-Robin DiAngelo, A white, upper-class, educated woman.
When someone says “I’m tired.” Our initial thought is always something along the lines of “What have you done that makes you tired?, but instead, we sometimes respond with shallow “band-aid statements” saying things like “I’m sorry” or “It’ll get better”.
When a person of color or a person of a minoritzed background says “I’m tired”, there are now several different layers you need to take into account. When a person of color says that statement, you need to think critically about the ways they have been treated in that day alone; the ways they have been talked over, treated “less-than”, and other various micro-aggressions that the individual may have faced in a given day. Now you must peel back the layer, and think about how this individual has been treated during their time in college, the ways they were treated on a campus with people who don’t look like them, the grades they received compared to their classmates, the ways they have been treated by adults and professionals. The next layers include the realm of the individuals social/mental well-being. Not only do the individuals face typical bullying from their classmates, they also face the unending arrogant and uneducated statements that are made about them or about another minoritized group. The student now faces insecurity under several lenses. (It becomes even more complex with individuals of multi-ethnic/multi-racial backgrounds). The next layer is related to the individual’s family. How has their whole family been treated in context of their neighborhood, by governing authorities, local law enforcement, and maybe even their own neighbors?
They are tired. They owe no one a justified reason to be tired. They are not responsible for being the one to explain to you why they are tired.
Think about it this way. If a sick person comes to a doctor, they expect to get better. However, it is not their responsibility to figure out why they are sick, they feel the sickness. The doctor has access to knowledge, resources, and medicines that can cure them. Therefore, it then becomes the doctor’s responsibility to help aid the sick individual, the doctor would surely not say “Suck it up. That is small.” or “Yeah….so what?”. The doctor would immediately begin the process of assessing and searching for the diagnosis by asking questions to their patients regarding their symptoms.
When they do explain their frustrations and pain, remember that this pain goes deeper then the privilege of what you can see. Their pain is systemic. Their pain is deep. The last thing they want out of their friends is a defensive and retaliated response.
Remember that these individuals can’t just separate their emotions or experiences from their race or ethnicity. For these individuals, it is not just “a small thing they got hurt by”, and should just move on. The last thing they need from their friends who they are trying to educate is a response that is defensive, argumentative, or filled with anger/retaliation.
If you are a white friend to an individual of minoritized background, and they share with you their reasons for being tired, keep in mind: THEY TRUST YOU or else they wouldn’t have told you. But if you react in the ways mentioned above, you are beginning to strip away their trust and giving White Fragility a good name. Also keep in mind, their tired-ness is not something to be compared to.
Now at first, this term White Fragility seems like an aggressive or demeaning term. I assure you this term is an assessment from the 2011 International Journal of Critical Pedagogy in an article published by Dr. Robin DiAngelo titled “White Fragility”.
Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white professor from the University of Washington, coined the term back in 2011, but the symptoms far outweighed the diagnosis. The symptoms are historic and deep rooted.
DiAngelo shared a story that helps paint the picture of what typical White Fragility looks like:
I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is lled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a de nition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institu- tional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his st on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!”
I look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of color in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality, and his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co- facilitator, the only person of color in the room. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.
Robin continues suggesting that the White community typically live in what is known as an insulated environment. “This insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.”
This tension builds, and when it comes time to be confronted with racial issues there are some mainline responses from the White community. “Common white responses include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance (all of which reinforce the pressure on facilitators to avoid directly addressing racism). So-called progressive whites may not respond with anger, but may still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because they “already had a class on this” or “already know this.”
In other words, just because you have a friend/co-workers who are black or you voted for Obama twice, does not inherently mean that you are immune of being educated on these issues that a person of color faces throughout their whole lives. Your tiredness on things mustn’t be compared to that of someone who faces these issues daily.
DiAngelo suggests that there are seven factors that instill White fragility, and keep in mind, these are the words of a white, upper-class, educated, female. I encourage you to read with passion and open ears and an open heart.
- Segregation Most white families still find comfort in segregated lives. Because they do this white people “receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically or with complexity.” This lends itself to the anger or devaluating response they might give to these issues. Furthermore, there is a sense that they do not feel that the lack of people of color is a bad thing at all. “White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives and in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and neighborhoods as “good;” whites come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is coded language for “white”.
- Universalism & Individualism Typically, there is a general statement that goes something like this “I don’t see color”. This statement is harshly degrading to a person of color. People of color never said they hated their own race or ethnicity, because that would also suggest they hate their own identity. It is in fact what makes the individual unique. However when their race becomes a degraded or devalued, the individuals have every right to feel that it is their uniqueness that also sets them apart. “The discourse of universalism functions similarly to the discourse of individualism but instead of declaring that we all need to see each other as individuals (everyone is different), the person declares that we all need to see each other as human beings (everyone is the same)….but when applied to racism, universalism functions to deny the significance of race and the advantages of being white.”
- Entitlement to racial comfort DiAngelo has one quote that covers this best. “White people have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort and thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is “wrong,” and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color).”
- Racial Arrogance DiAngelo has another beautiful quote that speaks to this. “Because of white social, economic and political power within a white dominant culture, white people are positioned to legitimize people of color’s assertions of racism. Yet white people are the least likely to see, understand, or be invested in validating those assertions and being honest about their consequences, which leads whites to claim that they disagree with perspectives that challenge their worldview, when in fact, they don’t understand the perspective.”
- Racial Belonging As I mentioned earlier, there is comfort in knowing you don’t have to change, and when you have found comfort in your racial identity, or your life is never affected by those terms, then you have belonging in your community.
“White people consistently choose and enjoy racial segregation. Living, working, and playing in racial segregation is unremarkable as long as it is not named or made explicitly intentional.”
- Mental Freedom As a white person, you can always strip your racial or cultural identity away as a means of belonging in your society, but when you’re different, everything you do or say and everything others do or say to you is seen through the lens of their racial or cultural identity (and which can’t be taken off). “Because race is constructed as residing in people of color, whites don’t bear the social burden of race. We move easily through our society without a sense of our- selves as racialized subjects…This frees white people from carrying the mental burden of race. Race is for people of color to think about – it is what happens to “them” – they can bring it up if it is an issue for them”.
- Constant Messages that White is more valuable (through representation in everything). “Living in a white dominant context, we receive constant messages that we are better and more important than people of color. These messages operate on multiple levels and are conveyed in a range of ways. For example: our centrality in his- tory textbooks, historical representations and perspectives; our centrality in media and advertising”
DiAngelo concludes “White Fragility doesn’t always manifest in overt ways; silence and withdrawal are also functions of fragility. Who speaks, who doesn’t speak, when, for how long, and with what emotional valence are all keys to understanding the relational patterns that hold oppression in place. Viewing white anger, defensiveness, silence, and withdrawal in response to issues of race through the framework of White Fragility may help frame the problem as an issue of stamina-building, and thereby guide our interventions accordingly.”
These factors must be taken seriously. Although they might not all apply to you, if your are a white person reading this, but they apply to most white people in general. I would take them more seriously considering they were written by a white, educated, able, woman of color.
Explore these deeply when you live and converse with people of color. Ask the right questions, maybe start with how these factors might have affected you.
And yes, we are very tired. And no, it’s not easy for us to explain, nor should we have to.
Written with love, caution, and urgency to my fellow brothers and sisters of the white community,
Your friendly neighborhood bi-racial brother,